When most people think about core exercise, they think about six-pack abs. That’s probably because your abdominals are the most obvious showing point for a toned core body. However – this does not mean they should be the focal point of your training.
Actually, if you’re looking to build core strength and aren’t sure where to start, dismissing the six-pack entirely is as good a place as any. Genetics, age, time and many other factors can make it extremely difficult – or even impossible – to get that washboard stomach.
The fact is, getting – and maintaining – chiseled six-pack abs requires amazing discipline, constant hunger, and at minimum, 10-14 hours of intense workout per week.
Why? Building some abdominal muscles is the easy part. Getting rid of the fat on top so you can actually SEE them is a knock-down drag-out war. And unless you intend on becoming a professional fitness model, body builder or athlete – it is most likely beyond reach.
Why Building Core Strength Matters – The Role of Your Core
If getting a six pack is out of the question, then why focus on core at all? Because your core is integral to everything you do, every day. Your core is the trunk of your body – maintaining rigidity and connecting your upper and lower body.
The core muscles have a couple of important jobs. First, they protect your spine and vital organs. They do this primarily by preventing excess movement. When you turn, bend over or lean, your core is actively preventing your body from damaging your spinal column or crushing important organs.
The second vital role is rigidity. When performing tasks that require leverage of any kind, your core is responsible for planting you firmly so you can perform that action. It’s hard to imagine how badly simple everyday activities like picking up groceries or pulling the cord on a lawnmower would end, if your core muscles simply stopped helping. Anything that requires lifting, twisting, reaching, bending or carrying relies on your core.
Core Muscle Groups
There are two main groups of core muscles, based on the roles they carry out. The first is inner core muscle. These muscles are closest to your internal organs, and include your diaphragm, pelvic floor, lumbar multifidus and transverse abdominis. Over all, these muscles are most involved in breathing, posture, rigidity and stabilization of the spine. They provide a strong base.
Outer core muscles are the ones that generate movement and provide the lion’s share of the stability. They also control range of motion, ensuring that you don't twist too far or bend too acutely – under normal conditions.
Core Strength Benefits
One of the most crucial reasons to maintain a strong core is to prevent injury. Every day activities will vary in the strain they place on your body – and much of the time that strain is directly upon your core. If your core is strong, you will hold under these strains. If not, injury can result. Pulled muscles, hernias and cramps are just a few examples.
Posture is another important factor. Good posture is vital for spine health and proper breathing. Bad posture is often a result of weak core muscles – and can increase stress on your spine, causing back pain.
On that note, back pain is a frequent – and often debilitating – problem among adults. This is very often the result of a weak core, and core strengthening exercises are often the only effective treatment. Maintaining a strong core before the onset of back pain can help prevent these issues entirely.
Balance, stability and agility are directly affected by core strength. The ability to move about freely and confidently is completely reliant on a strong core.
Common Mistakes to Avoid
Focusing too much exercise on a single muscle group can be counterproductive – and even harmful.
A common example of this would be focusing solely on the abs. As noted above, simply exercising your abs is not going to make them stand out – you also need to shed the layer of fat between them and your skin for that. Over-training your abs while neglecting your back and other crucial areas of your core can produce uneven growth. Unevenly trained muscles can in turn cause pain and promote poor posture, as well as increase your chances of injury.
Bending and flexing too much can be downright dangerous.
Most people have heard the phrase, “Lift with your legs.” When performing just about any exercise or activity, your arms and/or legs are doing work while your core remains as straight as possible and provides leverage. In this manner, your core can best do its’ job of protecting your internals while your appendages handle their job – the load of the work. When you flex your core however, you are transferring all of the load inward. The core muscles aren’t designed to handle this kind of stress, and injuries can quickly result.
Types of Core Strengthening Exercise
Core exercises are tricky to pin down as such, because nearly every type of physical exercise addresses the core in one way or another.
You can use this fact to your advantage however. Try to ensure that all of the activities you perform will maximize this usage, and you’ll get the benefits of a solid core workout every day – whether you’re targeting it specifically or not.
Beyond this general scope, there are many more specific ways to improve your core.
Don’t laugh. True, you breathe all the time – but are you breathing properly? Chances are, you rarely either take in a full lungful of air or completely expel one.
Your diaphragm is part of your inner core – and responsible for ensuring you breathe air to survive. That makes it pretty important. If you’re using yours properly, taking a deep breath will expand your belly – not your chest. Go ahead – give it a try. If your shoulders and chest move, you’re doing it wrong.
Learning to breathe properly will automatically help your posture – and better diaphragm and breathing control will also prove immensely useful when performing activities that require serious core rigidity.
Strength / Resistance Exercise
As noted above, just about every exercise can be a core exercise. Many strength exercises however are particularly suited for this – especially those based on an upright or standing position.
One of the simplest of these is deadlifting. When deadlifting, the force of action is placed on your legs, and rightly so. However, that power must be applied to the weight or weights being lifted. To get there, it passes through your core and arms, which remain rigid. Your legs may feel the burn most, but your core is taking a serious workout for it too.
An essential tool for core fitness is the kettlebell. Some of the key movements your core is designed to both facilitate and limit are twisting movements and bending sideways. Just about every one-armed kettlebell exercise will put some stress on your oblique muscles and require a significant degree of balance and control. Kettlebell swings are a good starting point. To get the most out of these workouts, you’ll want to try and keep your spine as neutral as possible throughout the entire exercise.
Other resistance exercises such as squats, lunges, bridges and planks will all significantly strengthen your core. Many of these have alternate techniques as well, that can place less of the strain on your arms or legs, while retaining the core requirements. Assisted pushups are an example of this.
Low Impact Exercise
Another benefit of core exercise is that most core-centric activities are inherently low-impact. Additionally, you can strengthen your balance, stability and core without any additional workout gear at all if you apply the right techniques.
Rowing: Kayaking or canoeing can be a great core workout, as well as keep your balance sharp and get the arms tingling. It will also give you a new perspective on the world when you spend some time navigating rivers, lakes or bays. And it’s inherently low-impact, giving you plenty of exercise without putting significant strain on your knees or other common problem areas.
If you’re not sure about taking to the open water however, a rowing machine can provide many of the same benefits. In fact, a rowing machine can provide significantly more movement than your typical boat allows for – turning rowing into a full body exercise that hits your core hard. It may not look as glamorous as the other things you’ll find at the gym, but if you’ve got to pick just one it’s a great choice.
Pilates: Core strength and Pilates go hand in hand – and very much by design. Whether you’re brand new to fitness or well on your way to becoming a trainer yourself, if you’ve never looked into Pilates it’s worth checking out.
Pilates is a naturally low-impact method of exercise built around strength and endurance movements. While some exercises are done on specialized equipment, many techniques can be done with nothing more than a yoga mat. Learning to practice the techniques properly – and thus get the most out of them – will usually require joining a class lead by a skilled instructor.
Strengthening your core is less about show and more about go. From carrying in the groceries to picking up a toddler, the benefits show through immediately in everyday life. Six-pack optional.
Exercises that target the core are plentiful, and offer a variety of additional benefits like increased strength, improved balance and greater agility.
Improved core fitness will also show through in the form of improved posture and better breathing.
All in all, it pays to get to the core!
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